You know things are upside-down when Republicans quote Bob Woodward more than Ayn Rand.
House and Senate Republicans might as well start their own QVC-style network to hawk Woodward’s book The Price of Politics. The GOP fetish over Woodward is both historically ironic (see: Nixon, Richard M.) and selective. Republicans gush over Woodward’s reporting that the sequester—$98 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in 2013—originated in the Obama White House during the debt-ceiling negotiations of August 2011. That’s really the only section of the book Republicans care about—and it is, I grant you, compelling reading.
It is also, as I have written here before, utterly and completely beside the point.
One reason why is obvious. The sequester arose out of a crisis over not raising the debt ceiling. This premeditated GOP maneuver sought a deficit-reduction lever against Obama with which Republicans extracted dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. Sequester, which Obama’s advisers first suggested, reduced discretionary spending and held harmless mandatory spending. All of this done at the point of a GOP-threatened government default.
Republicans precipitated the crisis; the Obama-generated sequester “solved” it. Ownership was mutual because, originally, neither side wanted the sequester. But that’s ancient history.
Far more fascinating and revealing is how House and Senate Republicans who once denounced the sequester and regarded it as dangerous now consider it the best—albeit imperfect—mechanism to reduce the deficit. I can remember the day the Budget Control Act (which set the sequester in motion) was on the House floor and Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said GOP leaders from Speaker John Boehner on down assured him—practically in blood-oath fashion—that Pentagon spending would never face the sequester buzz saw (half the annual discretionary cuts come from defense).
Now, the saw is at full throttle, and congressional Republicans are guiding defense spending blade-ward as if they were Ernie at Jason’s meat emporium, carving up Sunday rib eyes.
More startling, Obama now says he wants to delay the sequester with other spending cuts and tax increases. “This doesn’t have to happen,” Obama said Tuesday. “We can’t cut our way to prosperity.” That was his nod to the unsettling fourth-quarter report on gross domestic product that showed defense spending plummeting by 22 percent in mere anticipation of sequester-sized cuts. The president will now argue against cutting defense, which Republicans now appear willing to do. This is like Obama reading Ayn Rand and not using it as a skeet target afterward.
How did everything change?
Republicans, especially in the House, have become operationally gloomy about negotiating any new budget deal with Obama. They are a defeated force and only keep the appearance of poking and prodding for more deficit reduction. Whether they lost the tax debate or not during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, Republicans believe they did. They know they lost the 2011 payroll-tax debate. They rolled over on the debt ceiling before even raising a paw in protest. Republicans haven’t turned into complete lapdogs on deficit reduction, but they have become territorial on the sequester, the only actual cuts in federal spending they’ve achieved and the only ones they imagine themselves achieving in the near future. Futility had led to fixation.
And that means politics and legislative battle lines are changing. Republicans are now signaling (and numerous senior GOP leadership staff tell me this is no bluff) that they can and will live with last year’s unimaginable defense cuts to stick with the budget discipline contained in the Budget Control Act. This unites House Republicans especially.
Tea-party-inspired conservatives now say the only thing worse than defense cuts is no cuts at all. Increasingly, GOP rank and file are nodding in agreement. And GOP leaders now see sequester as the only point of leverage and accountability for Obama. If he wants to replace spending cuts with higher taxes, Republicans will fight that battle—and prefer it to clashes over default or a government shutdown. Obama owns the sequester as much as Republicans, and enforcing what is (spending cuts in law) beats fighting over what might be (default or shutdown).
House and Senate Republicans are closer on this approach than they’ve ever been. They want to make Obama sweat the sequester, and part of that is gamely holding a poker face that they can absorb the political fallout from deep defense cuts and other government-wide spending restraint (even if it means reducing the number of Border Patrol agents, food inspectors, and air-traffic controllers). And if Obama wants to avert these cuts, he will have to offer alternatives more palatable to Republicans (see: Shrugged, Atlas).
Last year, Republicans sought to shield defense spending with a wide assortment of entitlement cuts, coming up with a net $261 billion over 10 years that included veto bait like pulling funds from state health exchanges under “Obamacare” and key pillars of Dodd-Frank. That legislation is now a fly speck among GOP sequester talking points. It’s now down to who is willing to sweat the cuts.
The GOP appears willing, tactically and operationally, to sweat more first. It is generally unimaginable to see or even imagine Obama sweating. But the unimaginable is now imperative for Republicans.
This article appears in the Feb. 6, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Sweating the Sequester.